Pour Your Heart Into It

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading a book many in this industry might turn their nose up to. “Pour Your Heart Into It” is Howard Schultz’s account of how Starbucks grew from a small series of whole bean coffee stores into the mega brand that it is today. Well, I should say the mega brand it was in 1997, before the company hit some rough points in the past decade.

The book has been fascinating for me. I didn’t become familiar with Specialty Coffee until 2003. Most of the history I’ve heard about this industry, Seattle coffee, and Starbucks has been blurry, and everyone I’ve talked to has had their own version. Hearing how things actually started has been enlightening. I really do believe it is important to know where we’ve come from to know where we are going.

That being said, the biggest fact that I’ve taken away from this book is that Third Wave coffee, as it has developed, has not seen anything new.

First of all, Starbucks started with the same dogmatic principles that most of us hold close to today. The only real difference between where many of us stand now and where Starbucks was in the 1970’s is that the founders believed that you had to buy the best green coffee because only high quality green could stand up to a dark roast profile. Now, granted, this is pretty counter to where we are today, but they still stood by grinding fresh and brewing with proper technique… In fact, I was most surprised to find that the reason Schultz even found Starbucks was because he worked in sales for a company that made a manual, pour-over style coffee brewer… And Starbucks was selling an unusually high number of these brewers.

In the books Schultz even talks about how Starbucks didn’t offer anything except whole milk until the early 1990’s. It was the issue of whether to serve nonfat milk that made Starbucks have to question where to draw the line on customer service vs. coffee quality.

At one point, Starbucks had to reevaluate it’s customer service policies. People were becoming too elitist in their customer interactions, steering away many first time customers. 

There are many issues brought up in this book that connect directly to trends and issues we’ve encountered in our modern version of Specialty Coffee. Obviously, as Starbucks has grown, customer service has trumped quality. However, it’s interesting to see that a business can grow to 25, 50, or 100 stores and maintain most of it’s fundamental beliefs in coffee.

With talk of growth and expansion, and rumors of mergers, this all makes me even more curious as to where Stumptown Coffee Corp is going… Or what Intelligentsia is building up for. Starbucks laid the groundwork… but what if someone grew a chain as big, but intended to hold Third Wave quality intact. Reading this book has me dreaming and wondering, “Is it possible?”

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3 thoughts on “Pour Your Heart Into It

  1. I read that book when I first started at Starbucks 7 years ago, and I was thrilled by the ideals that shaped the company I was joining. What had transpired by the time I got there had changed things significantly, which I started to see right away.

    It was a great way to start, though. “Pour Your Heart Into It” kick-started my latent passion for an industry I don’t intend to ever leave.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say we’re still in the “third wave” of coffee. To me, “Third Wave” was almost strictly reactionary to corporate coffee. I think now, we’re coming to a place where we are starting to understand the science behind how to consistently turn out a very high quality product, and exist and expand to a broader, non-urban clientele. With this comes the service/quality clash, as mentioned. I do not think the two are mutually exclusive. I think you can have great service, and not compromise too much on quality by restricting options, and being able to articulate politely and professionally why you choose to do so. I think it’s the polite part that we currently have the hardest time with. Until specialty coffee figures out how to provide customer service that is not elitist, but welcoming, and empathetic, we will have a real struggle growing beyond where we are now. That being said, I’m not sure if large scale, rapid growth is healthy or sustainable for quality anyway. I’m with you, in that it will be interesting to see the choices the larger specialty roasters make as they expand, and when/if they choose to stop in the name of quality.

  3. Most of the time, I shutter at the term “Third Wave.” I think it’s something we’ve created just to please ourselves. However, I was recently writing about Specialty Coffee and trying to explain the difference between Starbucks and Stumptown. On one hand, the people who read this blog would not necessarily consider Starbucks to be Specialty Coffee. But the honest truth is Starbucks very much is Specialty Coffee… Especially when trying to explain it to the average coffee drinker. That said, I had almost forgotten the term Third Wave until writing that piece.

    Since it’s been back in my head, I look at it more like this… We are still very much in the Third Wave. Third Wave is said to have started in 2002. Until 2007, we’d done nothing to change how we presented coffee at a retail level. Every coffee bar functioned like a Starbucks. The only differentiating factors were the coffees being offered and maybe something special about the appearance of the lattes and such. In 2007, creative retail stores began to emerge. Think of Intelligentsia Silver Lake, La Mill, 4 Barrel (and their slow bar), Intelligentsia Venice (and their slow bar), Madcap’s Sunday Morning Service, and others that are slipping my mind right now. These are Third Wave Coffee bars. These are the business models that are changing how coffee is presented. I think Tonx.org and Handsome are what Third Wave coffee roasters can be, selling their coffees in a different model. You see the Third Wave is just starting to go from crawling to taking it’s first baby steps. We’ve got a long way to go before the average coffee bar no longer takes an order at a register which results in the calling out of a “Triple grande caramel latte!”

    Again, it’s not that I like the words “Third Wave.” It’s just that I’m not sure how else to say it.

    To all of us, I’d say that if you haven’t addressed customer service in your business, you’re already behind the curve. Especially, if you respond to customers the way that is exemplified in the “Shit Baristas Say” video. If that’s the case then you need to reevaluate before calling yourself a professional barista. I’m excited to see Handsome’s new retail operations and see how their mission statement manifests itself. I think we can all steal from their notes and pay more attention to the customer service at high-end cocktail bars.

    Bottom line, the world is still our oyster. People are drinking a ton of coffee. The good stuff is out there, but we can easily continue to improve the experience they have while getting it.

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